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It was the Joanne and Truman show

Times Staff Writer

They were an unlikely pair, Joanne Carson and Truman Capote. She was the plucky, gorgeous wife of the man who would become the undisputed king of late-night television. He was the diminutive literary genius whose rapier wit would eventually force him into a kind of social exile from Manhattan.

In 1971, the year before her divorce became final, she moved home to California, while Johnny Carson stayed in New York, where his show was then taped. She bought a rustic house on Sunset Boulevard, at the western fringe of Bel-Air. Eventually, Capote would take over two of her five bedrooms, making her home his California pied-a-terre, spending months there every year, swimming and writing -- and, on Aug. 25, 1984, dying, in his writing room, probably from an overdose of pills.

For more than two decades, in her unpretentious house crammed with mementos of a life at the edge of a certain strata of glamorous L.A., Joanne Carson has lived among the things Capote left her. But now she’s decided to part with most of it. On Nov. 9, “The Private World of Truman Capote,” comprising 337 lots, will go to auction at Bonhams in New York (with simulcasts at branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco).

Carson, a fit and youthful-looking 75, is capitalizing on the resurgent interest in Capote, who in the last year has been the subject of two films (the Oscar-winning “Capote” and “Infamous”) and a book, “Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball,” about the legendary party he hosted at the Plaza Hotel in 1966.

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That was the year Capote and Carson met, at a dinner party thrown by publishing legend Bennett Cerf. Capote, who would become a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show,” was the toast of the town, thanks to the astonishing success of his nonfiction masterpiece, “In Cold Blood,” the year before. Carson hated the social whirl and class consciousness of New York but bonded immediately with Capote, a famous social climber. In him, she said, she saw a “wounded child,” someone with whom she, a girl from a broken home who was sent to a convent school, could identify.

“Truman loved celebrity,” she said the other day, strolling through the auction preview at Bonhams & Butterfields in West Hollywood. “He crashed and burned because of the bitchiness of New York.”

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A lover of animals

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Carson said she doesn’t need cash. For a time she earned a living as a TV talk-show host, and she invested her divorce settlement with Peter Eliades, the well-known stock expert. She later returned to school, earning a doctorate and working as a metabolic therapist. But her passion is animals, and she plans to donate much of the auction proceeds to several pet-related charities, including a pet hospice that a veterinarian friend of hers in Santa Monica is trying to create.

The auction’s centerpiece is the last story Capote ever wrote, penned for Carson next to her pool the day before he died. He asked her: What would you like for your birthday? “Truman,” she replied, “I just want you to write. If you’re writing, I’m happy.”

“Remembering Willa Cather” is a 14-page unfinished essay, written on a spiral-bound notebook, about his chance encounter and ensuing dinner with one of his literary heroes at the New York Society Library on a snowy day in the 1940s, when he was a teenager. The story appears, unedited, in the November issue of Vanity Fair, which paid Carson $10,000 for the publishing rights. Its auction value is estimated between $20,000 and $30,000.

“All the critics said that he couldn’t write and that it was all over and that he had destroyed his talent,” said Carson, alluding both to Capote’s well-known substance abuse and to “Answered Prayers,” the much-hyped-but-never-finished novel that was excerpted in Esquire and proved his social undoing. “And that’s why this last manuscript of his is so important.”

Another item features Capote’s extensive edits on a never-published 38-page essay by Carson about meeting and falling in love with her future husband in New York City in 1960. She recounts being introduced to Johnny in New York by her father, who’d come on a business trip to visit his daughter, a struggling model, and was introduced by a mutual acquaintance to Carson, then the host of “Who Do You Trust?”

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Truly inspired edits

The typed prose is workmanlike, but there are extensive, and truly inspired, edits by Capote. It seems clear (and Carson confirmed) that he made up dialogue and some details, but preserved her feelings and the essential truth of the piece. (There is a very funny scene in which, on one of their first dates, she attempts to weigh a roast beef on her bathroom scale, and Carson unexpectedly walks in. “I think I’ll just make myself another drink,” he deadpans.)

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In addition to knickknacks such as embroidered pillows, pens and many Baccarat decanters, there are Polaroid photos, some taken by Carson, of Capote cavorting in her pool after a face-lift and 80-pound weight loss at a Florida spa. (He gained it all back, she said with a sigh.) There are six collage boxes made by Capote out of snakebite kits, a hobby Carson thinks evolved from his fascination and fear that began when he was bitten by a snake as a child.

The worlds of Hollywood glitz and New York literati collide in one of the auction’s offerings, a March 1982 note to Capote from Irving “Swifty” Lazar forbidding the novelist from bringing Carson as a date to Lazar’s famous Oscar-night party. “Dear Tru,” it began, “Delighted that you can come to our ‘bash’ ... but it would be impossible for you to bring Joanne Carson, since it would create an embarrassment for Johnny which would be intolerable.... Bring someone else if you wish. Or, you can hold hands with Gore Vidal or Howard Austin -- or even with me -- but not Joanne, the ex. Love, Irving.”

Over dinner at Matteo’s, Capote and Carson showed the note to Jody Jacobs, The Times’ society columnist. She wrote an item and got disinvited herself. “Thud,” she wrote in her follow-up. “It’s the sound of another Lazar ‘Unwelcome Mat’ falling into place.” But other invitations poured in, and Capote, Carson and Jacobs were given an ovation when they walked into a different Oscar party in Bel-Air.

In her divorce, Carson said, Johnny got most of their friends. “Everyone moved toward Johnny, because that was where the power was,” said Carson. “But Truman stood by me like a rock.” And his loyalty was repaid some years later when he fell from grace in a most public and unpleasant way.

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His New York ‘swans’

This occurred in 1975, when Esquire published “La Cote Basque,” one of the chapters in “Answered Prayers.” It was a thinly veiled story about the sexual peccadilloes of a gaggle of socialites who, until then, were his dearest New York friends. They were his “swans,” as he called them: Babe Paley, Slim Keith and Lee Radziwill.

Said Carson: “Before he died, when I asked him about ‘Answered Prayers’ and how it would be perceived, Truman said to me, ‘People will cut their own throats with their own tongues.’ A lot of people said how outrageous this piece was and how they wanted nothing to do with it ... yet today, it’s an important piece of literature. I know people who say to me today, ‘Oh, my grandmother was in “Answered Prayers.” I’m so proud.’ ”

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She is even forgiving of his recounting of a marital indiscretion on the part of her husband, to whom Capote gave a pseudonym -- Bobby Baxter -- and called a “sadist ... behind that huckleberry grin.” (Carson was loath to talk about that, saying she loved Johnny very much and didn’t want to dwell on anything that could hurt his reputation. And besides, she said, it was her own fault for telling Capote the story in the first place.)

Among Capote’s possessions on the block: the baby blanket made by his Aunt Sook, who raised him; the Courreges jacket he wore to Studio 54; the tuxedo he wore to his famous Black and White Ball; his dancing slippers; and little notes he’d leave around the house, including one that simply reads, “I am a genuis.”

“Truman never could spell that word,” said Carson.

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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